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Eucharistic Theology

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

In the sixteenth century, theories concerning the Holy Eucharist ranged from complete symbolism to some kind of spiritual presence. To meet this challenge to the Catholic faith, the Council of Trent defined the Real Presence in a series of four canons:

  1. The Church condemned "anyone who denies that the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, but says that Christ is present in the sacrament only as a sign, or figure, or by his power."

    The “Whole Christ”

    The expression "whole Christ" means that Christ is present in the "fullness of his divine and human natures"; it means that he is present under the sacramental appearances with the "totality of his divine attributes as well as human properties." How such is possible is part of theological speculation, but the fact is a matter of faith.

  2. Some adversaries of the day were ready to admit a Real Presence, even a corporeal one, but claimed that Christ was present along with the elements of bread and wine. Not so, the Council held, as though "the substance of bread and wine remains in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist together with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ." This would be to deny "that wonderful and extraordinary change of the whole substance of bread" into Christ's Body and whole substance of the wine into his Blood, while only the species of bread and wine remain, a change that the Catholic Church has fittingly called transubstantiation.

  3. The Church answered the question whether Christ was present entirely under the form of bread alone or wine alone, or was he present only under the forms of bread and wine together. The Council affirmed that "in the venerable sacrament of the Eucharist the whole Christ is contained under each species and under each and every portion of either species when it is divided up." In the sixteenth century, the strong insistence that the chalice be given to everyone occasioned this definition, which was also the doctrinal foundation for receiving only under the form of bread.

  4. Another theory held that the Real Presence is to be identified with the liturgical action. The Church declared that one cannot say that the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are "present only in the use of the sacrament while it is being received, and not before or after, and that the true Body of the Lord does not remain in the consecrated hosts or particles. that are left over after Communion." This definition of the Council of Trent implies that Christ is present in the Eucharist really and objectively. His presence does not depend on the people's faith, piety or devotion.

Given the fact of Christ's presence as long as the species remain, it was only logical for the Church to worship the Blessed Sacrament as it would the presence of Jesus himself. As a result, he is to be adored "in the sacrament of the Eucharist with the worship of latria, including the external worship." Concretely this means that the Blessed Sacrament is to be "honored with extraordinary festive celebrations" and "solemnly carried from place to place" and "is to be publicly exposed for the people's adoration."

A Renascence of Faith in Real Presence

The teachings of Trent ushered in a renascence of the faith in the Real Presence that affected many aspects of the Catholic liturgy. Notable among these was the renewed impetus it gave to the worship of the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle or exposed in the monstrance on the altar.

God raised up Apostles of the Real Presence, including persons like St. Margaret Alacoque and St. Peter Eymard. Margaret Mary's revelations, which helped promote the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart, occurred while she was in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Peter Julian Eymard founded the Priests of the Blessed Sacrament, with a special emphasis on devotion to the Real Presence.

There the matter stood at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In the meantime, new theories arose that the Church felt were endangering the unqualified faith in the Eucharistic presence and how it was brought about. These theories centered around the psychological notion of presence and the ritual of sign. The two were closely associated and, in order to forestall any further crisis, Paul VI took the unprecedented step of publishing a major doctrinal encyclical between the third and final sessions of the Council.

The Pope distinguished no less than eight ways in which we may speak of Christ being somewhere present:

  • He is present in the Church when it prays, since it is Christ who prays for us and in us, and to whom we pray as to our God. This is the sense in which we believe that where two or three are gathered together in Christ's name, he is there in the midst of them.

  • He is present in the Church when it performs its works of mercy, not only because we do to Christ whatever good we do to his brethren, but also because it is Christ, performing these works through the Church, who continually assists the faithful with his divine love.

  • He is present in the Church in its pilgrimage of struggle to reach the harbor of eternal life, since it is he who through faith dwells in our hearts and, through the Holy Spirit, whom he gives, pours his love into our hearts.

  • He is present in the Church as it preaches his Gospel, since the Gospel which the Church proclaims is the word of God. It is preached in his name, by his authority, and with the assistance of his grace.

  • He is present in the Church as it governs the people of God, since the sacred power inherent in the Mystical Body comes from him. As shepherd of shepherds he is present in the pastors who exercise the power conferred on them as successors of the apostles.

  • He is present in the Church when it offers in his name the Sacrifice of the Mass, and he is present to the Church whenever it administers the sacraments.

Christ is present in all these ways because he is active in our regard, and his influence is experienced by those to whom he is present.

  • He is present uniquely, however, in the Real Presence – a presence that is different from all the foregoing. It is the physical presence of Christ in our midst, no less truly than he is now present at the right hand of his Father. Consequently "this presence is called real – by which it is not intended to exclude all other types of presence as if they could not be 'real' too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense. It is a substantial presence of which Christ, the God-man, is wholly and entirely present." If we could make a graphic comparison, there is as much difference between Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament and his presence elsewhere on earth as there was between his presence among his disciples when he appeared to them on Easter Sunday night and his presence before and after the appearance.

One of the surprises of the Church's teachings since the Second Vatican Council is its strong emphasis on devotion to the Real Presence. Worship of the Holy Eucharist, not only during Mass or when receiving Holy Communion but as reserved on the altar, has been part of Catholic life and practice since the earliest centuries. With the renewed stress on active participation in the liturgy, however, some had difficulty reconciling what seemed to be private exercises of piety with authentic liturgical theology. As a result, in some sectors of the Church such customs as Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Benediction and Forty Hours were eclipsed in favor of a more "dynamic" and "involved" Eucharistic liturgy.

The basic issue at stake was to maintain a balance between what had come to be called the horizontal aspect of the liturgy, concerned with people, and its vertical dimension, concerned with God.

A Valid and Firm Foundation

In order to redress this balance and at the same time reinvigorate devotion to Christ's abiding presence in the Eucharist, the faithful were first of all reminded that such devotion "has a valid and firm foundation, especially since belief in the Real Presence of the Lord has as its natural consequence the external and public manifestation of that belief." As social beings we profess to others what we possess within ourselves.

What was further needed, though, was for the Church to establish the precise relationship between prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and the Eucharist as liturgy. This was done by first stating the principle and then explaining its application. The principle declares that "when the faithful adore Christ present in the sacrament, they should remember that this presence derives from the Sacrifice and is directed toward both sacramental and spiritual Communion." Except for the Sacrifice of the Mass, there would be no Eucharistic Presence to adore, and through devotion to this Presence between Masses attended the faithful are better disposed to profit from their participation in the liturgy and reception of Holy Communion. The application opens the door to a Eucharistic renascence which integrates every facet of Eucharistic piety:

"The devotion which leads the faithful to visit the Blessed Sacrament draws them into an ever deeper participation in the Paschal Mystery. It leads them to respond gratefully to the gift of him who through his humanity constantly pours divine life into the members of his body. Dwelling with Christ our Lord, they enjoy his intimate friendship and pour out their hearts before him for themselves and their dear ones, and pray for the peace and salvation of the world. They offer their entire lives with Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit and receive in this wonderful exchange an increase in faith, hope and charity. Thus they nourish those right dispositions which enable them with all due devotion to celebrate the memorial of the Lord and receive frequently the bread given by the Father.

The faithful should strive to worship Christ our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in harmony with their way of life. Pastors should exhort them to this and set them a good example" (Instruction Eucharisticum Mysticum, n. 50).

Pattern Set by Authorities

While the faithful should make devotion to Christ's abiding presence part of their daily lives, those in authority are to set the pattern and teach people accordingly.

Because the Eucharist is the most Sacred Presence of Christ and his Paschal Mysteries in the Church, it is both the "source and summit" of all the Church's ministries and apostolates.

The other sacraments, as well as every ministry of the Church and every work of the apostolate, are linked with the Holy Eucharist and are directed toward it. For the most Blessed Eucharist contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ himself, our Passover and Living Bread. Through his very flesh, made vital and vitalizing by the Holy Spirit, he offers life to men. They are thereby invited and led to offer themselves, their labors, and all created things together with him" (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests).

From the liturgy and especially from the Eucharist, as from a fountain, grace is channeled into us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their goal, are most powerfully achieved (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). Saying this, the Catholic Church believes that the Word of God who became man is, indeed, to be proclaimed in pulpit and classroom and by all the means of social communication. But, unlike the churches of the Reformation, Catholicism further and emphatically believes that this same Word of God made flesh is also the sacrament of the Eucharist. Moreover, and most importantly, we believe the Eucharist is a sacrament three times over: as Presence, Sacrifice and Communion.

Presence Confers Grace

As Presence, Christ confers grace on a sinful world just because he is in the tabernacle. As Sacrifice, Christ pours down his blessings of mercy on the whole human race every time that Mass is offered. And as Communion, he feeds our souls with his love, so that we might love him in return.

Our spiritual life will grow and our apostolates will flourish, on one condition: that we center our lives on the Eucharist. Why? Because the Eucharist is Jesus Christ living on earth, in our midst, today.

Andre Frossard's Eucharistic Conversion

Andre's father was the secretary of the communist party in France . The children were brought up in perfect atheism; it was just taken for granted that God does not exist.

Andre lived in Paris. One of his friends was a staunch Catholic who longed to share the blessings of his faith with others. At his request Andre read a book presenting arguments in favor of the Church. Instead of being convinced the twenty-year old atheist became more set in his views. And once and for all he was going to tell his Catholic friend how he felt. So it was decided that they would go to a restaurant one evening. The atheist would make it clear that he did not believe and that any effort to make him change was doomed to failure.

While they were driving to the restaurant, the Catholic stopped the car in front of a chapel and asked his friend to wait a few moments. A few minutes later, driven by curiosity, Andre decided to enter the chapel to see what his friend was doing. The Sisters of Adoration Reparatrice were chanting the Divine Office before the exposed Blessed Sacrament.

Suddenly he seemed to hear the words “Spiritual Life.” Another world was opening before him. There is order in this universe of ours. It is obvious: there is a God. And it is to that God the Christians go as to their Father. Light was accompanied with joy, the joy of the man who is saved from shipwreck. At that moment he became aware of the horrible condition in which he had been living. At the same time he knew that he was in the presence of the God who forgave him.

As one would expect, the interior transformation was reflected in the countenance of the convert.

“What is the matter with you?” asked the Catholic friend.

“I am a Catholic, Roman, apostolic.”

“But why are you staring at me?”

“God exists, yes it's true.”

The convert was entrusted to a priest and in due course received into the Church. All he heard was a source of joy to him. “There is one truth,” he would say, “that amazed me. And that was the Eucharist. Not that I refused to believe. I marveled at the love of God who had chosen such a means to communicate Himself. What increased my wonder was the fact that to give Himself He had chosen bread, the food of the poor, the favorite food of children. Of all the gifts Christianity spread out before me, this is the one I found most appealing.”

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica

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